Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Educational Atrocities 101

If you thought the heinous practice of institutional child abuse ended when Charles Dickens exposed it in his novels, think again. Not only has it survived through the centuries, it's now enjoying something of a renaissance right here in the New Feudal States of America.

You've heard of the nefarious School-to-Prison Pipeline. But how about that gateway intramural system preceding it, where jail cells within the schools have become almost as ubiquitous as classrooms? In educational Newspeak, they are euphemistically called "Scream Rooms." They are gulags within gulags.

You might think that handcuffing children and locking them up in tiny isolation chambers would be rare, or at least limited to Texas and other law-and-order "red" states. But it's prevalent, and growing throughout the country, even in small, liberal Connecticut. As Senator Chris Murphy learned, there are 30,000 instances of physically restraining pupils or placing them in padded rooms reported every single year in his state. And so, he has introduced legislation to ban the practice nationally.
“That way to deal with behavior just does not work. Actually kids don’t respond to that,” Murphy said in an interview with local news station WTIC. 
“There are just better ways to deal with behavioral issues than just locking kids up in padded rooms,” he said. 
The rooms are as small as 4’x4’ or 6’x6’, he said. 
Murphy said an overuse of restraint or seclusion could lead to mental and physical injury to children as well as to other children witnessing the practice.
A "disproportionate" number of the abused children have been black and Latino.( No surprise there, in a state just over the line from the "Stop & Frisk" capital of the world, where until recently, virtually every black and Latino man had been restrained by police at least once, simply by virtue of existing.) And 40% of the maltreated children have Autism. So much for the great American Race to the Top. The Core is more rotten than Common, it seems. When the kids balk at taking the corporate standardized tests administered by Mr. Gradgrind, then Mr. Squeers comes to the rescue to add a little incarceration to the indoctrination.

As an ABC News investigation found in 2012, no national standards exist for student discipline. Criminal statutes that ban unlawful imprisonment, assault, and terroristic threats are typically not enforced to protect helpless children against the adults in the room. Poorly trained school personnel in overcrowded and underfunded schools make up their own rules as they go along. At least 20 children have died as a result, many others severely injured, and an untold number both experiencing and witnessing the abuse are emotionally traumatized. And to their shock, parents have found that they often don't even have recourse in the court system.

The practice of meting out extreme remedies for fractious student behavior has long been rampant in schools for the developmentally disabled, and as those students became increasingly "mainstreamed" into public schools, so-called"normal" children also got caught up in the fray. Simply witnessing the restraint and isolation of their peers also has an untoward effect on the kids who do "behave."

Jessica Butler, an attorney and parent of a child with Autism, has written a report called How Safe is the Schoolhouse? -- a state-by-state analysis of pupil restraint and seclusion practices. Only 19 states have laws restricting such remedies for all students, and 32 have partial protections for students with disabilities. Only 12 states collect even minimal data on the use of restraint in schools. Some states have already taken steps to ban in-school isolation entirely. The five states with the worst records -- having no policies in place at all to protect children in school -- are New Jersey (hello, Chris Christie), Idaho, Mississippi, North Dakota and South Dakota.

There seem to be little pockets of Kim Jung-un in the halls of Academe:
In 2012, a New York teenager with disabilities died in physical restraint.
Other incidents in the GAO report included very young elementary school children being placed in strangleholds,tethered to ropes, and restrained for long periods of time. One young girl was strapped into a miniature electric chair replica.
Bungee cords and duct tape were used to fasten children to furniture. Children endured broken limbs, bloody noses, bruises, and post-traumatic stress syndrome as a result of the restraints. A National Disability Rights Network report likewise found that students were strapped into chairs, restrained on the floor by multiple adults, held in arm locks and handcuffs, and restrained in other unsafe ways, with some incidents resulting in death, broken bones, and other injuries.
More recently, a 2013 Minnesota newspaper reported about the restraint of a boy with autism that interfered with his breathing, and of a 10-year-old who was held face down for nearly an hour for having a tantrum over a puzzle.
  The usual defense used by  school administrators when parents complain is that the discipline is only used as a last resort to protect an unruly child from harming herself or others:
 Daniel A. Domenech, who heads the American Association of School Administrators....  said the practice of restraining an out-of-control student is an unwelcome but essential part of keeping teachers and other students safe. And the vast majority of the time, he said, school officials are able to subdue a child without harm coming to anyone."What do they do when the child begins to hurt themselves or when they attack another child?" he asked. "Do they just stand there and watch? They don't. They intervene."
Domenech was simply echoing the sentiments of another famous educator, one Wackford Squeers, late of Dotheboys Hall, Yorkshire. When Charles Dickens invented Headmaster Squeers as one of the villains in Nicholas Nickleby, he acknowledged that his fictional depiction of a sadistic school administrator would probably be viewed as hyperbolic. But he was only scratching the surface of an institutional reality. Forced doses of castor oil substituted for food. Mental and physical disabilities were imposed, not just inborn. 

 Dickens's words in the preface could just as easily be applied to the entrenched abuse rampant in what purports to be our own modern, "progressive" American educational system.
Where imposture, ignorance, and brutal cupidity, are the stock in trade of a small body of men, and one is described by these characteristics, all his fellows will recognise something belonging to themselves, and each will have a misgiving that the portrait is his own.
"The Author's object in calling public attention to the system would be very imperfectly fulfilled, if he did not state now, in his own person, emphatically and earnestly, that Mr. Squeers and his school are faint and feeble pictures of an existing reality, purposely subdued and kept down lest they should be deemed impossible. That there are, upon record, trials at law in which damages have been sought as a poor recompense for lasting agonies and disfigurements inflicted upon children by the treatment of the master in these places, involving such offensive and foul details of neglect, cruelty, and disease, as no writer of fiction would have the boldness to imagine. And that, since he has been engaged upon these Adventures, he has received, from private quarters far beyond the reach of suspicion or distrust, accounts of atrocities, in the perpetration of which upon neglected or repudiated children, these schools have been the main instruments, very far exceeding any that appear in these pages."
It'll be interesting to see how far Chris Murphy's efforts to outlaw Scream Rooms progresses in the Senate. Will Ted Cruz perform a marathon filibuster to champion the benefits of handcuffing and isolating children while they're forced to listen to tapes of his recitation of Green Eggs and Ham? Will his GOP cohort suggest rewarding schools that perform well in the corporal punishment department and punishing those who don't use Tough Love by forcing teachers to arrest kids at gunpoint? Will they even suggest withholding food from pupils as an incentive to learning?

Oh, wait. They're already doing that in Salt Lake City. Forty kids had their school lunches taken away and thrown away in the garbage recently when their financially struggling parents fell behind on their payments. It's exactly the same thing that happened in Dickens' England when the tuition was late: starvation and incarceration.

 Will the the forces of capitalism once again trump human rights and organized labor?

Do American children have money or a lobby?

The Internal Economy of Dotheboys Hall


James F Traynor said...

For all our breast drumming to the contrary, we're a strange, inhumane bunch. Not that classroom disruption and emotionally disturbed children aren't a big problem in this country (a lot of it probably resulting from that very inhumanity). Our reaction is as big a problem as the children themselves.

Kat said...

I'm sorry, but this line is silly:
"Poorly trained, underpaid school personnel make up their own rules as they go along."
It is not just a matter of "training". You can get all the training in the world, and in some cases it just isn't helpful.
I'm not justifying inhumane punishment, I'm just saying lets get real-- there is no magic solution to classroom disruption, but I would wager that smaller class size would help a lot.

Pearl said...

Another area of concern regarding the increasing reports of autistic
children, children whose behavior requires medicating, etc. may very well be connected to what is in the foods we and they eat. The large amounts of preservatives and other chemical additions for taste, etc. in processed foods has been shown to create problems in people's (especially children's)
physical reactions. I once purchased a pudding not requiring cooking which seems to be all of them now, and saw a listing for several unknown substances in the package and checked them up on the computer. They were either preservatives or artificial color or flavor enhancers which had
warnings on them about negative effects to the body, which could affect children more and who eat a lot of these puddings and other processed foods.
I myself will never buy such foods for myself and have found that I do have reactions to specific items such as artificial sugar substitutes.

I know this seems to be a minor problem but basically it is not. One could add children not getting proper nourishment in impoverished homes which certainly affects their behavior and learning ability and which Michelle
Obama should have focused more on than obesity - which often goes along with poverty.

I feel sorry for teachers trying to cope with children who are the victims of our society and should be able to teach without the restraints of children who cannot behave 'normally' due to the stress in their lives from family and society. Many give up and move to other areas of work especially when assigned to schools in impoverished areas which is a loss all around.
Great column Karen and very disturbing as well it should be.

Valerie Long Tweedie said...

I agree with Pearl - and have for a long time wondered why kids are acting the way they do in school. Is it the food? - because school age kids eat a constant diet of faux food - or is it the closing of society and opportunity? There isn't much hope for a lot of families and kids pick up on that hopelessness.

I remember having a boy in my class who, the year before, picked up a chair and threw it at the teacher. He brought a knife to school and threatened one of my students. No one at school was provoking this child or mistreating him in any way yet he felt he could act this way and was very belligerent. I had a friend, a wonderful, caring teacher, leave the profession because she was threatened by one of her students for making him take off his hat in her English class. The whole thing got REALLY ugly, with him vandalizing her car and threatening to hurt her kids. Her principal said he couldn't do anything about it because the student was a special ed student - My friend was being intimidated in her own class and after a couple of months couldn't take it anymore and quit. So that is the teacher side of the issue. There are no easy answers to what should be done. Teachers and fellow students have a right to feel safe at school but what to do with the students who are considered a threat to others.

On one hand, it seems like many problem students are spoiled or neglected - either way, they come to school with no respect for authority. They challenge their teachers for entertainment which is not only exhausting for the teacher but prevents the students who want to learn from getting the the attention and instruction they deserve.

Yet, I wonder if this misbehavior is hiding deeper issues. So many families are financially insecure causing parents to be either absent (because they are working all the time) or depressed and angry because they can't find meaningful work - to say nothing of the burden of debt. Kids take on a lot of their family's worries and act out because they don't know what to do with uncomfortable feelings.

It is a very complex problem. While I don't think the prison mentality is the answer, what should be done when these rough kids act out?

annenigma said...

Parents seem to care more about what their children are exposed to in terms of food or even vaccines than what they ingest in terms of exposure to aggression and violence. The saying 'you are what you eat' should be modified to 'you are what you expose your brain to'.

I know two adorable kids, 2 1/2 and 5, who are the epitome of caring and thoughtfulness, very bright and well behaved. But they frequently lapse into these aggressive episodes where they pretend to shoot bad guys and monsters. Lately the little loving 2 1/2 began escalating it by saying he is going to shoot and kill his Mama and Papa and Grandma. Their parents are very conscientious and caring, so where is this coming from?

Is it the ubiquitous American military worship where our soldiers are honored as our only 'true' heroes? They hardly watch any tv since they only get over-air stations. Video games? Or is the brain simply reverting to the more primitive animal behaviors?

When I announced that there would be no violence or aggression around me, no gun play, no pretend shooting or anything along those lines, what happened? They turned into joyous little puppy dogs, happy and playful. They discovered that peacefulness can feel as good as aggression. But it seems almost un-American to openly and actively discourage aggression and violence in play because it is so normal in our society.

Aggression isn't just rewarding in terms of winning competitions, it feels good. Look at some of the Olympics winners. Many contort their faces in what looks like anger, throwing their fists in the air, throwing their equipment, and roaring like conquering beasts. (The exception are those adorable young snowboarders who fall on the ground in a ecstatic group hug).

Personally, I think the David Lynch Foundation has the right idea about promoting meditation in schools - and at home if we could be that fortunate. Meditation is proven scientifically to help the brain rewire itself to higher levels of functioning, overriding the default setting of primitive aggressive which often clouds judgment and often leads to impulsive behavior. Clearer thinking and better ability to make connections are also a benefit.